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Remember Kathua

Stop and ask, can depravity, brutality and injustice be justified by religion and politics?

 

The brutal murder and serial rape of an eight-year-old Bakherwal-Gujjar girl living in a village near Kathua, 72 km from Jammu, is horrific enough in all its detail. But, what has emerged since the police investigation led to the arrest of the alleged perpetrators of the crime is even worse, for it has exposed the fault lines in our society. How have we reached a point where the rape and murder of a child is used to fuel communal hatred and promote politically sanctioned impunity for criminals?

The gruesome details about what happened to this child between 10 January, when she disappeared, and 17 January when her brutalised young body was found, are terrifying because of what this represents in terms of human depravity. That a child could be abducted, drugged, confined in a temple, repeatedly beaten and raped, and then murdered and thrown out is horrific enough. What makes it worse is that the perpetrators included members of the local police. One of them even joined the search party with her parents after they complained that she was missing, all the time aware of where she was and what was being done to her.

Once the state government finally instituted an investigation after the child’s body was found, and the suspects, including the policemen, apprehended, politics took over. Instead of condemning the rape and murder, and demanding justice, politicians and even lawyers have taken up with the accused, cast doubts on the ability and the impartiality of the Jammu and Kashmir police, and demanded that the central government hand over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation. This open display of support for rape suspects is unprecedented, with the Hindu Ekta Manch, supported by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), marching with the national flag demanding justice for the accused, and lawyers physically trying to prevent the police from filing the charge sheet. In all this, the fact that a young child was raped, tortured and murdered seemed almost besides the point.

There is, of course, a larger political context behind these developments. For the BJP, in a coalition with the Peoples Democratic Party, Hindu-majority Jammu has given it a firm foothold in the state. The communally polarised politics between Jammu and the Kashmir Valley has remained undiminished despite this uneasy coalition. Thus, it is not surprising that the rape of a child, who happened to be Muslim, and the arrest of suspects, who are all Hindu, has laid the ground for playing the communal card. That this can be played out on the savaged body of a young child surely represents a new low even for Indian politics.

Yet, even as we express outrage about the turn of events around this rape and murder, we need to consider the larger context. First, that child sexual abuse, rape and domestic violence are rampant in this country. Statistics do not tell half the story. Women and girls are attacked, tortured, and sexually assaulted in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, on the street, in the fields, in the forests—anywhere. Stronger laws have made little difference. In 2012, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act was enacted. In 2013, the rape laws were tightened and the death sentence introduced. Despite this, the incidence of rapes and child abuse has not decreased. Laws can be effective only if the systems that implement them work.

Second, we must also remember that this incident took place in Jammu. In the same state, in the Kashmir Valley, there have been countless rapes of women and girls that almost never trigger outrage in the rest of India. Apart from the usual problems in the delivery of justice, women there also have to contend with the provisions of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act that gives immunity to men in uniform from such crimes.

Third, when politics injects the poison of hate between communities, it is women who are targeted to teach the other side a lesson. We have seen this play out in many locations since partition and it has not stopped. But, the new twist today is the confidence with which the purveyors of hate operate knowing that their supporters have the power to protect them. How else can you explain the brazen nature of the support for the accused in the murder of this child?

It is essential that there is a demand for the systemic changes that are needed to ensure that other girls do not undergo the same fate. The first port of call for victims is the police station. Here, they find no sympathy. Even if the case is noted, and investigated, there is still little hope that there will be justice. Lackadaisical investigation and indifferent lawyers virtually ensure that these cases will fail. Our justice delivery system is broken and needs to be fixed.

We thought 16 December 2012 was some kind of turning point in the conversation about crimes against women. This little girl’s death should surely be another such occasion, one that makes every Indian stop and ask about the direction in which our society is headed. Is it going to be one where depravity, brutality and injustice are accepted and justified in the name of religion and politics? Or, will humanity prevail to inform us that all lives are precious and that criminality knows no religion?

(This editorial has been updated to conform to the 13 April order of the Delhi High Court directing the media not to use the name of a child victim of sexual assault.)

Updated On : 18th Apr, 2018

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